Some days at work I catch myself thinking “I didn’t sign up for this!”, whether it’s while thumbing through pages of statistical test reports or signing up to use the electron microscope for the third Friday afternoon in a row. The ways in which we spend our working hours can leave us feeling like we’re in the wrong place, like this is not the work we were put here on earth to do. Keeping with the pace so far of this summer of book reviews, I couldn’t resist a quick read of Chris Guillebeau’s Born For This, a book that’s out there to tell us all that we are, indeed, born for something greater than endless days of feeling we’re stuck doing the wrong sort of job.
I first heard of Chris’ book while perusing Gretchen Rubin’s website and was hooked on the concept of finding the work you were ‘born’ to do after taking the online quiz which accompanies the Born for This book. According to the quiz, I’m a dynamic organizer, and the description seemed to fit me to a T: a person who feels comfortable with structure but who craves flexibility, who likes to keep busy but hates feeling stressed, and a person who has seemingly opposite desires to both work independently and to be collaborative. The quiz was quick and easy but the detailed description also felt really accurate, which prompted me to check out Born for This at the library to see exactly what else it had to say.
Reading the book was especially timely since I am approaching a pivotal transition point in my career: my current post-doc contract will finish this spring and I am looking around for where to go next. Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, this book is a great read regardless of what career stage you’re at. I would actually encourage those of you early in their scientific careers, who are getting ready to get into the nitty gritty of the next stage of life as a scientist, to use the tips in this book as a way to get a leg-up on your future career. But regardless of what stage you’re at, there are a lot of great talking points in this book, and you don’t have to be an independent business owner or an entrepreneur to use them. At first glance it may seem like the book is only intended for those who are looking for a major career transition or are looking to start their own money-making scheme at home, but the book has a wider relevance than that. Being more entrepreneurially-minded is especially important in this day and age of scientific research, when networking and promoting yourself is another part of your job description. In this sense, acting like an entrepreneur by gaining some insights from people who have succeeded outside the lab can really help set you up for success as you move further and further into your dream job territory.
The first few chapters of Born for This are focused on helping you discover the work you were meant to do, followed by tips and tricks of how you can go about getting that job. While most laboratory-based scientists may find it hard to be self-employed (the start-up capital required for your own HPLC or genome sequencer will likely hold you back), the lessons in the first part of this book can help you figure out what you’re good at, what drives you, and how you can make money doing it. Throughout the book, Chris also gives several examples and stories of people he’s met over the years who have been successful either at transitioning into a new career, breaking into a difficult to get into field, or setting off on a new and eventually successful business venture. These stories are inspiring in their own right, as well as Chris’ own story of jumping around from job to job and country to country before finding his own voice in helping people in their own careers, and serve to motivate and encourage readers as they venture through their own bit of career soul-searching.
If you look at the stories presented in Born for This, you can see a common thread that connects all of these successful people together: each of them identified a goal and pursued it wholeheartedly, or they identified a set of guiding values and followed them clearly. Regardless of which way you go, the first step is same: What do you value and what is it that you want to achieve? When I ask people why they got started in graduate school, the theme of loving research is always there, and while we all enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, it’s also a very vague answer. What exactly is it about science and research that drives us to finish the mundane tasks? Is it the dream or hope that our work will make an impact on the world? Is it learning something new every day? Is it the opportunity to teach or give back to the community? Is it the fact that we get to play with flammable chemicals or liquid nitrogen and that working in a lab feels ‘cool’? Whatever your answer may be, simply ‘doing research’ isn’t enough of a detailed answer to lead us to the next stage of figuring out what we were born to do.
To figure out what this job exactly is, Chris provides a model and a quiz exercise in Born for This as a way to think about what a fulfilling career has. Chris calls this the joy-money-flow model: a job should be something that makes us happy, provide enough money to live, and should maximize your own unique skillset. An ideal job is one that maximizes all three in that it’s what you like to do (joy), it supports you (money), and is something you’re good at (flow). The quiz exercise found in the book is a helpful guide for working through what parts of the model your current job is or isn’t meeting, and what types of work are ideal for your needs.
For example, many young scientists love ‘doing research’, but may find that aspects of academic research such as writing grant proposals or working with undergraduate students don’t fit in with the joy or the flow part of the model. Thinking about how your work can maximize each aspect of the model can help you get into more specifics, and also brings in your own expertise and skillset into the equation. As another example, you may enjoy doing research but find that one of your skills includes working with K-12 students or in working with business clients. In this scenario, even though you enjoy research, you may be able to find additional career satisfaction in another field such as working at a science museum or becoming an industry consultant.
Another great piece of advice that Chris offers in terms of figuring out your flow is by thinking of how others ask you for help. What is your role in a group setting or in the lab as a whole? What do colleagues ask you for your help or opinion on? If you’re not in a position where you feel like you get asked for help, you can try the opposite by reaching out to your work colleagues and asking them what they need help with. And if you have ideas of what you’re good at already in mind, you can try reaching out to contacts and colleagues you’ve already made and offer them help with a specific task that you think they would appreciate. Maybe you’re really good at making schematics for presentations, and you know your lab mate is giving a talk on some new data at an upcoming conference. Offer to make a slide for them in your spare time and who knows-it could lead to your own science graphics side hustle!
One concept from early on in the book that I though was particularly relevant for scientists is this: even if you get a paycheck on a regular basis and have an employer, an office, and a seemingly ‘9-5’ type of job, we are all at some level self-employed. If you want to go beyond where you’re at now in your work, there’s no one else in your company or university can make your career happen except for you. We spend our time in graduate school being mentored and as recent graduates learning more skills, but at the end of a contract it’s our responsibility to make our own career.
Even in more stable settings like industry, where you don’t have to deal with the pressure of short-term contracts and grant proposals, good people can still end up losing good jobs, which highlights the importance of putting your own career in your own hands as much as possible. I have a good friend in Omaha who worked for a Fortune 500 company which decided, after nearly 25 years of being in the same location, to move to Chicago and subsequently started laying off staff around Christmas. She was lucky to have kept her job, but others who had been working at the company loyally for years weren’t so lucky. Being responsible for your own career and fostering your own professional network won’t guarantee you a job if things go wrong, but by investing in yourself and giving time to someone besides the company that pays your bills can pay off in the event that things take a turn for the worse. Remember that even when you change jobs or have to move to another part of your career, you get to take your personal network and professional connections and your reputation with you, so be sure to give them the care and attention they need to help you succeed!
Outside of the entrepreneurial/self-employment perspective, Chris also gives some sound advice for the job search. As detailed in this book, the job search is a game of imperfect information and multiple strategies (think of poker versus chess: poker has imperfect information while chess has perfect information, since you can see the full game board). Chris recommends a winning strategy that includes 1) having a back-up plan for any major decision, 2) taking out a ‘career insurance policy’ by having good relations within your professional network, 3) asking five people to help you while starting your career search (on things like finding leads for a job, an introduction to another colleague, or a skype chat to talk about the layout of your CV), and 4) creating an ‘artist’s statement’ which describes your work, your goals, and who you are. Chris states that in the service industry, a good reputation is an asset-and that’s certainly the case in science as well. Foster your professional network even in the times when they aren’t directly needed, and be useful and helpful to the people you know so you’ll be remembered as an engaging and hard-working person.
I’ll avoid re-telling Chris’ entire book here, but will leave you with this reminder from Born for This: It’s OK to feel like you’re learning more about what you don’t want to do in the early stages of your career. In the long run, knowing what you don’t like can help guide you to an ideal career as much as the positive experiences. Part of getting to that perfect career is to go through a range of experiences, from incredible and rewarding moments to the frustrating days where all you wanted to do was to have 5pm roll around. You won’t know what your ideal job is right away, and that’s normal. Reading through the numerous stories of people in soul-searching mode reminded me of that, and it shows that finding the work you were born to do is very rarely a simple or linear journey.
Science will always be a challenging field to work in, but it is also a place where active and enterprising young scientists, ones who are adaptive to new ways of thinking, communicating, and planning, are poised to leap ahead. I greatly enjoyed reading Born for This, and have only given a small taste of what he lays out in his book. Even if you’re not planning a major career shift, the strategies in Born for This in terms of building up your professional network and ‘fanbase’ are great life lessons for the early stage of a career, whether you’re an archaeologist, a zoologist, or anything else in between. Chris’ book is also a great reminder that there is no one size fits all career, and that part of the joy in finding what we were born to do is in recognizing what we’re good at and what we’re passionate about. Finding a way to get paid for what drives and inspires us is an added bonus!